Drive less than an hour north of Anchorage and the landscape changes dramatically as you enter Mat-Su. The view opens up to showcase dramatic peaks rising steeply from a vast, flat valley floor.
This is only the beginning. At 25,000 square miles, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough is nearly the size of West Virginia. The attractions of this region are varied and surprising; you will find everything from world-class wilderness experiences to historic sites and museums and delicious and uniquely Alaskan eats.
The charms of the Mat-Su start even before you reach its official boundary. In Eagle River, be like a local on a sunny Saturday and hike up Mount Baldy; a short, steep climb to above treeline with terrific views. You’ll earn your lunch — and schooner-sized signature beer — at Pizza Man, chased by a quick pick-me-up from the well-loved coffee shop Jitters. Not quite ready to leave the area? Head a little farther north on the Glenn Highway and take the exit to Eklutna Lake. Rent kayaks for the day and paddle out on this pristine, glacial lake that supplies Anchorage with its drinking water.
Next stop: Palmer. You could spend an afternoon or a lifetime here and have plenty to do. Downtown is postcard-picturesque with breathtaking mountain views. Park the car and take a walk: check out the Palmer Museum of History and Art, duck into the well-loved independent Fireside Books, fuel up at delicious and superbly run Turkey Red restaurant, and top your visit off with a flight at 203 Kombucha, a modern and community-minded kombuchery. Need to stretch your legs? Options range from hiking the well-loved local Butte to more strenuous hiking on Lazy Mountain. On your way out of town, pay a visit to the Musk Ox Farm to learn firsthand about this unique and iconic Arctic creature from knowledgeable guides.
Heading north, don’t miss historic Hatcher Pass. Hatcher Pass Road winds 12 miles from downtown Palmer and over 3,000 feet up into the Talkeetna mountains, with incredible views at every turn. Learn about the area’s mining history by visiting the museum set right in the alpine at Independence Mine State Historic Park; take a hike and see remnants from perilous gold mining operations amid the jaw-dropping tundra scenery. If an afternoon visit isn’t enough, stay over at Hatcher Pass Lodge in one of the adorable red A-frame cabins. Or, just grab a bite in the cozy cafe with stellar views.
Wasilla gets a bad rap for its strip malls and big box stores. Locals know there’s much more just off the beaten path. Pay a visit to the Wasilla Museum and Visitors Center to orient yourself. Venture down Knik-Goose Bay Road to the Knik Museum, situated at what was once the most populated community along Cook Inlet. Golf much? Keep driving, and tee off at Settlers Bay Golf Course. Back in the core of Wasilla? Don’t miss a meal at delicious and creative Basil Ginger restaurant. Take advantage of convenient one-stop-shopping by fueling up the car and getting groceries before continuing north.
Talkeetna is as charming and quirky as Alaska towns come. The walkable downtown is like a scene from the ‘90s TV show “Northern Exposure” — if it were actually filmed in Alaska. The journey down the 14-mile spur road to town from the main highway is long because there’s so much to see. Inventive and tasty Denali Brewing Co. cannot be missed; ditto with Flying Squirrel Bakery Cafe, a standalone gem tucked away in the forest. Alaska Wild Harvest offers tours and tastings in its birch syrup production facility and wonderful gift shop. Approaching town, the Denali view on a clear day is worth the entire trek. A visit to Talkeetna Roadhouse is a must — either to stay or to feast, or both; visit Dancing Leaf Gallery for a flavor of well-curated local art and craft. Want to get a closer look at Denali? Check out the options for flightseeing tours.
Finally, push the boundary of the Mat-Su region and your physical ability by paying a visit to Denali State Park. No, this isn’t the national park and you won’t actually summit The Mountain. But you’ll still experience thrilling and wild Alaska outdoors with an overnight at K’esugi Ken Campground, and a hike up the slow but steadily uphill Curry Ridge trail that has stellar and consistent Denali views.
If there’s one region in Alaska with a little taste of everything magic about the state, it’s Mat-Su. Fuel up, power down, explore and enjoy all that you’ll find in this amazing corner of the world.